~This story was previously published in Rosebud (2010).
Jacaranda blossoms littered the steps of 36 Katima Mulilo. Tom Jensen knocked three times. He didn’t feel great about mooching a bed from his dad’s old pal, but he’d run out of options. When the door opened, he asked the Zambian houseman, “Is George Wilson in?”
“Now is not a good time. Can you come back after tomorrow? Maybe next week?” The man whispered, traces of Shona in his accent.
“George gave me a standing invite.” Tom started to explain, when the man muttered he would check with Bwana George, clicking the door shut.
Tom unslung his backpack, trying to figure out why this guy wouldn’t let him in. Maybe George’s house was too small to have a spare bed. Zambians lived in this neighborhood; the houses had wire fences, not like the rich diplomat compounds of Nairobi and Harare where he had been a house-sitter. Still -- Lusaka with its flowering jacarandas was as pretty as promised by the bedtime stories his dad had told him and his baby sister Lucy.
The door opened and the houseman, still frowning, ushered Tom into a square living room. Maybe George would help him find a job or at least give him time to figure out where to go and what to do next. Being expelled from Zimbabwe had been scary, but he wasn’t ready to give up on Africa and go home to frozen Minnesota. George would also have news of his mother and Lucy.
On a wood table, George’s surveying tools, a transit and a light device, weighted down blueprints. Enormous splashy paintings covered the walls, a sort of Cubist Victoria Falls, an abstract orange sunset over the savannah, and a Cape Buffalo herd done in dots against a pink sunrise. All three paintings seemed like windows onto familiar landscapes, even though they were modern and blurry.
“Tom, welcome to Lusaka,” George’s booming voice preceded him. “College didn’t work out?”
“Wow, you’re dropped –what – 50 pounds? How are you, you old scoundrel?” Tom said. George’s voice was the same but everything else had changed, his lanky six foot frame now stooped and his wavy brown hair mixed with gray.
George plopped in an easy chair and waved Tom into the other. “You look as scrawny as ever.”
“Nothing like travelling to keep a guy lean.” Tom laughed. He was a head shorter than George and Africa had kept him skinny with a couple of bouts of malaria. He hadn’t seen George since that night they’d prowled the State Street bars in Madison. George had been looking for some action but with his bulky beer gut, he hadn’t had any luck with the sleek young guys. Mid-evening, George gave up trying to score and they’d had fun as George showed Tom how to look gay when he needed to. Now he was washed up on George’s doorstep, out of work, nearly out of money, out of ideas. “I was doing just great until that ass Zimbabwean president shut down all the independent newspapers and my job disappeared.”
“Your mum told me in her last couple of Christmas cards to watch out for you in case you got into more trouble. Are you in trouble?” George asked.
“Not really,” Tom mumbled, thinking how little she cared. He’d run 10,000 miles away from one DWI charge and a crashed up car and she still nagged. She’d never help him, but he missed Lucy. Lucy had been fine in the backseat, even though his accident totaled his mom’s Camry. “Do her letters mention Lucy?”
“Something about her high school golf team and how proud your dad would have been of her.” George was folded up, arms crossed on his chest. “Your dad would be impressed at your political reporting. Mugabe’s dangerous.”
“My dad--” Tom felt sort of sick in his belly. He remembered the day Lucy was born, standing next to her crib, his dad had said they, the men in her life, would always take care of her.
“We gotta remember the good times.” George stood and strolled to the Vic Falls
painting. “Back when it was fun.”
“Remember my first beer? In Ghana?” Tom tried to get a chuckle from George, dredging up the memory of shebeens and tasting homebrewed beer under his dad’s and George’s guidance on his first trip to Africa. He forced away thoughts of his dad teaching him and Lucy how to golf.
After his dad died of a heart attack, of all his old engineering pals and coworkers, only George kept in touch, writing regularly and calling when he was passing through the U.S. He was the only one of the old team his mom would tolerate.
“It was a great escapade.” George half-grinned, acting for a second like the George he knew, the guy who always made him laugh. “Now when did you last talk to your mum?”
Tom cracked his knuckles. He didn’t want to talk about his family drama. In Zimbabwe, he’d felt desperate and alone. Now relaxing in a cushy armchair, he didn’t particularly want to think about that.
“I haven’t called her in about three years, but you don’t have to play guardian angel uncle. I’m fine.” Tom said. It wasn’t like George to nag or offer unsolicited advice but George was friends with her, even if she couldn’t stand her only son. “She refuses to let me speak to Lucy after I flunked out of UW.”
“You’re being an independent cuss, aren’t you? Family is important, even if you don’t believe me.” George half frowned, his chin tucked down instead of its usual position, jutting out to meet the world.
Tom had been sure George would understand his anger at his mom and how much he missed Lucy. Now Tom didn’t think he would get any help because George wasn’t George today, somehow shrunken.
“How’s business?” Always a good way to deflect tricky conversations – get the person talking about himself which should bring George out of his glums. Hopefully George would offer him a job and Tom wouldn’t have to ask.
“Good and bad – Zambian style.” George touched the painting, his finger tracing the signature. “After all kinds of excitement to start a job, you get into it, muddy your hands, lay the first sight lines and then everything stops.”
George offered vague details about the sporadic progress on the highway, only saying how if some village was having harvest and the crew chief went on holiday, all work would wait. “Then you relax. Or go to an AIDS funeral. I got one tomorrow.”
Tom asked, “A co-worker?”
“Kind of. Micah Tembo. A survey tech.” George crossed to his chair and sat again. “So what’s this reporter work you’d like to pursue here? Newspaper or wire stringer?”
Tom wondered what the deal was with this guy Tembo. He must be more than a co-worker to George. Tom had only known George to date white guys. In his own experience junketing around the continent, Africans weren’t usually openly gay. Heterosexual AIDS was killing so many people. That must be it.
“I want to interview the Zambian president or his election team.” Tom bent to adjust his shoelace. Lying about being a reporter was a good way to get around a city, talk to people, find out where little odd jobs like house-sitter, courier, or even dog trainer that paid well and would let him relax for a while. He didn’t know how to tell George that he wasn’t really a journalist, that he’d conned his way into that reporter gig, and that he only house sat for the BBC guy. Lying to somebody who had known him as a kid was hard.
“Come, let’s grab a beer and see what Moses is cooking” was George’s reply. “You can flop in my spare room, if you like. I’m not travelling the rest of the month, so you can keep me company. Tomorrow. This funeral. Um, it’s no big deal, but will you come with me?”
Tom agreed. George knew about his DWI run-in and Wisconsin, but he wasn’t going to bother about them now. It was like George wasn’t listening. Maybe after dinner and a couple of beers, Tom could get him talking and then find out what was bugging him and also ask for those Christmas letters from his mom.
George showed him the spare bedroom and pointed out the bathroom. The bedroom had a comfy bed, but it reeked of turpentine. Poking in the closet, Tom found a box of paints and brushes. So that explained the big painting. George was getting artistic. Further searching turned up an afro hair pick and shoes too small for George. Micah Tembo’s? He’d never known George to have a live-in companion. He didn’t discover any Christmas letters.
The next morning, driving on the Great East Highway, Tom could see the crowd at the hillside cemetery. Dozens, maybe a hundred people appeared to be marching and protesting. He rolled down the window and the noise hit him. They were chanting and dancing. George turned into the single lane road and parked about 50 yards from the mob, but he didn’t get out of the car.
Tom cracked his right knuckles, but stopped himself. Not very respectful at a funeral. Tom gripped his kneecaps to keep from fidgeting and waited, watching the people. Some kids, a few men, mostly women and gray haired old ladies amid a field of little headstones and bare crosses.
George didn’t move. Why come to a funeral to watch? George was even quieter this morning. The whole crowd thing made Tom twitchy.
“Might as well go, hey?” Tom prodded.
George swung the door wide and planted his feet on the ground. Pushing his hand against the dashboard, he rose out of the driver’s seat.
“Nice turnout for your friend.” Tom eased the door open. A wave of voices boomed from the huge group -- scary how loud they were close up. Their chanting rose from a low note to a uuulong sound and then descended again. The men, maybe the pall bearers, stood motionless next to the grave site. They weren’t singing.
Among them, Tom glimpsed a white face, the priest in full long garb, white stole over black cassock. Two little boys swung incense lanterns, the blueish smoke hovering near the stubby grasses. Tom couldn’t understand anything the priest was saying, but he glanced in their direction and George nodded. A woman next to the priest pointed at George. She whispered to the pall bearers and they moved closer to her. Scanning the crowd, Tom realized he and the priest and George were the only whites there. What if they objected to two white guys?
The crowd of women stomped and swayed. Every one of them in a bright color with a matching ruffled turban. The movement was a haze of green, orange, red, blue, and purple. Bright teeth in dark faces, their heads swinging side to side.
Tom felt dizzy in the noise and dust. He wanted to go stand with the children, a cluster of quiet boys and girls, far from the grave, but he trailed George. They stopped on a knoll about fifty feet back from the priest.
“Father Harry and I go way back to Congo days,” George whispered. “Micah’s sister, Grace, is next to him.”
Tom hadn’t been to a funeral since he was fifteen. His dad’s death at fifty had been a real surprise. The whole damn town showed up because his dad had been friends with everybody. Tom remembered boring hymns and the organ music in a dark church. He remembered feeling frozen. Nobody even cried out loud except his mom. Lucy, only eight that spring, had clung to him.
On this bright cloudless morning, this whole scene was so weird: amid the constant motion and wailing, there was almost a calm, a peacefulness in the crush of bodies. Nobody felt cold or detached here; the dead guy must have had a huge family and loads of friends.
Suddenly the crowd of women parted in front of them. The sister, all in yellow, faced them. She looked about thirty, maybe five or six years older than him. She raised her hands to stop them. She knew that George was gay -- did the whole crowd know? Her palms open, her fingers splayed, blocking her face and blocking their approach. The six men formed a semi-circle behind her, looking a whole variety of angry, eyes squinting and fists clenched.
George bowed and then grabbed Tom’s arm and retreated. The priest touched her shoulder and whispered to her, but she shook her head. The singing began again and the women circled the open grave.
Each woman scooped up a clump of the dry soil and let it filter through their fingers into the grave. The dust hung on the air before descending into the black hole. Now Tom could hear the priest intoning dust to dust.
The women seemed to be singing “ohye, dust to dust, ohye, man return." Tom turned to ask George how long the service would go on, but George was crying.
Tom didn’t know what to do or say so he dug in his pockets for a tissue. He didn’t have one.
George wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Then he pressed his fists against his eye sockets. “They can’t stop me.” He lurched forward to the circle of women and stepped through their line.
Tom hurried after George but he watched the crowd, trying to see how the group of angry men would react. George approached the grave from one side and the men closed on it from their side. Tom nudged through the blue and green and orange, trying to catch George. What would those men do to him? The sun, rising to the zenith, beat down on his scalp. Dust was everywhere.
George picked up dirt, holding a big fist of it. The woman in yellow, Grace, shouted and three other women moved across his path, preventing George from reaching the grave. The men shouted. One raised his fist. The priest lifted his hands and called for ‘peace, peace for God’s sake.’ The men retreated as the priest almost shooed them. This close Tom could see the six all had on Roman collars like they were deacons or monks or something – thank God they stopped at the priest’s command.
George marched forward with long strides, more like his old self, his wide shoulders towering over the round women who fluttered around him, arms waving but not touching him. One hand supported his other, protecting the dirt. The priest laid his hand on the sister’s arm, holding her. She shook his hand off and turned her back on George.
Like it was a signal, all the women stepped back and let George and Tom approach the grave. George marched to the hole. Tom caught up, ready to grab him, afraid he’d fall in. A plain unfinished box lay at the bottom, a red cross painted on it.
At the foot of the grave, George repeated the women’s motion of letting the dirt filter through his fingers. The dirt fell like a sprinkled spice on the coffin. George tapped his hand to his heart. The priest appeared and he cupped George’s elbow, pulling him from the grave.
The sister, her eyes clear of tears, intercepted Tom. “Please take him away.”
“Yes, Ma’am. My condolences,” Tom murmured. What a beautiful angry face -- the almost caramel brown eyes, her heart-shaped face. He offered a proper bow and an African two handed greeting to acknowledge her loss.
She only glared at him and hissed ‘fancy man.’ He hurried after George and the priest who were half way to the car. George opened the car door and stumbled into the driver’s seat.
The priest intercepted Tom on his way to the passenger door. “Welcome to Zambia -- where funerals are what we do for fun. Take George home and give him a stiff drink. Don’t let him come back here today.”
Tom bobbed his head in agreement. What the hell was happening? Why was the sister so mad even if Micah dated George? What was George’s secret? Would those men stay back or come beat the crap out of them? George sat, clenching the steering wheel, his breathing choppy.
“Why don’t I drive?” Tom tugged the keys out of his fingers. Without a word, George nodded and slid to the passenger’s side. Tom jumped in the driver’s side, eager to be gone. “Micah lived with you?” Tom reversed the car too fast, spinning gravel. Maybe talking would help George pull himself together. “How long?”
“Two years.” George’s voice cracked.
Now Tom got it. Not an employee, not a friend, not a casual date, Micah was George’s lover. Micah’s shoes in the closet. Micah’s hair pick in the bathroom. “Where did you meet him?”
“At a trade school here in Lusaka. I was looking for a new survey tech and stumbled into the art studio.” George covered his face with his hands. “I loved him like your mom loved your dad.”
Tom bit back ‘not exactly.’ The evening of his dad’s funeral his mom had sat motionless in his dad’s favorite chair. She sat in their dark living room the entire night. When she stood up in the morning, she had turned brittle in her way of talking and thinking. It was hard to remember her before that. “Now my mom only loves herself.”
“You didn’t know your folks together.” George lifted his head. “You don’t understand her now. It’s family, pride, or some kind of dignity.”
Tom swallowed. His dad’s pride in him and Lucy. His mom was always so happy that she cried when his dad walked in the door, returning from his overseas jobs. Tom had failed in the family department with the first arrest and continued to fail in her eyes with his goofy jobs and his rambling around. “Micah’s sister hates you?”
“At first we lied to her. Told her he was my tech.” George groaned. “Grace found out. She wanted to protect him from me.”
Tom whistled low. Family. Of course. Sisters. He thought of Lucy. He hadn’t heard her voice in four years.
George slammed his fist at the dashboard. “She’ll never take any money from me. I tried to pay for the funeral. And she should let me. She has kids and no husband.”
A huge green bus pulled out in front of them and Tom braked. Grace -- another widow. A brotherless sister.
“Hell, she thinks I killed him. I didn’t give him HIV. I swear.” George’s face seemed to melt, his eyes closed, his mouth slack. “She said he was already dead to her, living with me. At least she ignored us which let him paint.”
“Those huge pictures are his?” That was the next piece of the puzzle. This Micah lived with George to be able to paint freely. Did the sister hate whites and gays and artists?
“I could get him everything he needed – brushes, canvases, paint, a home, and he gave …” George stared out the windshield. The big bus ahead seemed full of Zambian women and children.
“She couldn’t accept who he was with you? That’s it?” Tom felt so sorry for George, but he’d never heard of George openly living with another man for all his preferences. George was always seeing somebody but never co-habitating. It was too risky for an expat, so likely to offend somebody -- diplomats, missionaries, and even it seems, the Africans. This Micah must have been special.
“She didn’t know him. She wanted to change him,” George whispered. “She wanted to bury his talent. I’ll fix her. I’ll -- ”
“Hang on. She was his sister after all.” Tom swerved to miss a white sedan, merging. The bus blocked his view of the side roads. How would Lucy feel if he turned up dead? “Maybe Moses could give her the money for you.”
“No, it must come from a white man. She’s wrong about us. I’ll prove to her she was wrong about him.” George straightened up. “Left here, you nearly missed the turn.”
Tom spun the car. He’d have to stick close to keep George out of trouble. No telling which way this emotional overload would lead. Better to focus on George than try to think about Lucy and his mom, which ached inside his gut.
The next Tuesday morning, six days after the funeral, the proper Zambian ritual of home mourning, Tom entered George’s bank, a fancy new building with green marble walls and a white marble floor. The lobby had the usual security guard, dressed in blue, and the line of businessmen in the velvet ropes and the tellers clicking their adding machines.
Micah’s painting of Victoria Falls hung on the marble wall. Even though he had argued for George to find an art gallery or an Embassy, Tom had to admit it looked good in this fancy bank. On the dark green wall, the colors popped out.
Would she show up? George had sent a message via Moses that Tom volunteered to return things belonging to her brother. Inside the brown paper package tucked in the shoes was a fat wad of cash, the money George had browbeaten out of his bank manager to pay for the painting. His proof of Micah’s talent.
“I put aside my pride to come, but I wanted to see it for myself.” She had a singsong voice. Today she was not in yellow, but in a black sweater and a batik skirt and faded tennis shoes. Arms wrapped across her chest, which made her shape more square. Her hair, free from a turban, was in bouncy curls.
“Again, I’m sorry for your loss. Here.” Tom offered the brown paper package. “His work is beautiful, isn’t it?”
“The sun is likely to fade it.” She touched the blue water in the painting, ignoring the package. “Yes, it is lovely here.”
“Please take this.” Tom offered the package again, resting on his palms like it was a gift. The heart shape of her face was more pronounced with her mouth frowning. She was still angry but at least she had come.
“You Americans. Just like the British.” Her voice rising, “You show up and think you make everything better. But you don’t. It is always your way, not ours.”
“I’m not one of them,” Tom urged. He glanced over his shoulder at the bank guard. If she started shouting, the guard would throw them out and he would fail in his mission for George and fail her. “Please. Hear me out,” he whispered, “If your brother was always the way he was –then if not George, it would have been another man.”
“Like you are already his new man.” She raised her hand like she was going to slap him, but she stopped.
“No, you’re wrong. George is an old family friend. I don’t like men, not like that.” Tom wanted to drag her toward the door. If only he could say, ‘I like beautiful women like you’ but she’d never believe him. “George is like a brother to me, a big brother. He was friends with my dad.”
“I was the big sister. I didn’t raise him right.” She was beginning to cry.
Tom touched her shoulder and shepherded her out the door, away from the stares he felt burning into his back. “What was Micah like as a little boy?”
“He was a good student.” She leaned against the building. The sun made the bricks blazing hot. “Always studying so hard.”
“What did he study?” Tom pointed to a bench under the flame trees. “Let’s sit.”
“Everything. Math, science.” She wiped her face with a handkerchief. “But always he was drawing or carving. Little animals. People.”
“George helped him to create these wonderful paintings.” They’d reached the bench and she sat. “Sometimes sisters and brothers can’t do for their siblings, can we?”
“No, but we try. We must try.” She nested her hands in her lap.
“No, but we try. We must try.” She nested her hands in her lap.
Tom laid the package on her hands. “You have children, right?”
“Yes, two boys and a girl.” Her eyes were half closed, but her mouth curled into a smile for a second.
“Take this for their schooling. For her schooling.” Tom laid his hand on the package, softly pressing on it. “Your brother would have wanted it for her. I know he would have.”
She crinkled the brown paper as she stroked the bundle. Tom dug in his pocket for his skinny roll of cash and held it out. Only $50 but greenbacks and that would buy a lot of stuff. He gulped -- what was he doing? “For school books and uniforms.”
“Thank you.” She finally clasped the package with one hand and accepted the money with the other. “You have a sister, don’t you?”
“I’m going to call her today.” Tom touched her shoulder, ready to sit, to offer to buy her tea. “I’d like to see you sometime.”
She shook her head. “All men are liars. At least call your sister.” Then she rose and walked away.
Back at George’s house, Tom picked up the phone, dialed all thirteen numbers, and said, “Mom, it’s me, Tom.”
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
“Fancy Man” is a short story, plucked from an unfinished novel which is waiting quietly for me to return to it. The main character Tom has been a thief, a con-man, and a ladies man in all his appearances. This story specifically arises from two powerful experiences of my time spent living in Zambia. A friend’s driver died of AIDS. He collapsed in her foyer and died shortly after. This kind man had been our guide and helper in exploring the city when we first arrived. Secondly, as I drove past the main cemetery of Lusaka, I often saw groups of women dancing and singing. Their motion and bright colors was such a contrast to the sadness of their chanting. “Fancy Man” takes the reader to the beauty and devastation of Zambia in the early 1990’s.
ABOUT JULIE WAKEMAN-LINN
Julie Wakeman-Linn has edited the Potomac Review since 2005 and teaches at Montgomery College in Maryland. Her short stories have appeared in many literary magazines, including Rosebud, Gargoyle, JMWW and MacGuffin. Her novel, Chasing the Leopard, Finding the Lion, a finalist for Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, was published by Mkuki Na Nyota in 2012. Her short story, “Challenges of Non-Native Species,” was a finalist for the WWPH 2014 Fiction prize. She grew up in South Dakota and has lived in Africa twice.